According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more U.S. citizens died from drug overdoses in 2014 than any year since the Atlanta-based government agency first began collecting such data. Approximately 78 Americans die from an opioid overdose each day. Of the estimated half a million Americans who died from a drug overdose between 2000 and 2014, 6 in 10 overdosed on opioids.
The disturbing fact is that while the CDC estimates the number of opioid prescriptions have quadrupled since 1999, there has been no overall change in the amount of pain reported by Americans. At the same time, deaths from prescription opioids —such as hydrocodone, methadone, oxymorphone and oxycodone — have also increased four-fold since 1999.
These drugs include Opana, Vicodin and OxyContin, the latter of which emerged two decades ago with the marketing claim that one dose would last as long as 12 hours, more than twice as long as similar prescription drugs on the market. And as a Los Angeles Times investigation concluded, many patients who were prescribed OxyContin found that the half-day relief from pain was not necessarily true. After combing through thousands of documents, including confidential records that belonged to OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, Times reporters Harriet Ryan, Lisa Girion and Scott Glover revealed:
A cauldron of events led to the the mass popularity of OxyContin and then the rapid increase in addiction. Before the mid-1990s, due to fears that they could become rapidly addictive, opioid medications were generally limited to treating symptoms for severe pain from terminal diseases such as cancer. At the same time, Purdue Pharma, owned by the wealthy Sackler family, needed a new product as its patent on MS Contin, another pain killer, was close to expiration. Upon the development of OxyContin, the company invested in a massive and aggressive marketing campaign, which even included music CDs and trips to posh resorts, in an effort to court doctors and convince them to prescribe the drug for conditions such as back pain.
It was around this time that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) loosened regulations on direct-to-consumer advertising, and the prescription infomercial was born. While Purdue Pharma only focused its marketing on doctors, its persistent tactics -- such as sending videotapes touting OxyContin and patient “success stories” to 15,000 doctors across the U.S. -- helped sales of the drug soar. Never mind the fact that some of those stories were dubious, and forget about the Purdue Pharma executives paying $600 million in fines because of misleading statements to patients, doctors and regulators about OxyContin’s effectiveness and safety. Last year the Sackler family edged into Forbes’ list of the wealthiest American families, edging out the Busches, Mellons and Rockefellers.
But while the Sacklers have scored a massive financial windfall, its affects on families and communities, especially in rural America, has been devastating. Some have placed blame on doctors, with prosecutors focusing on shutting down the “pill mills” that have allowed many citizens to become addicted to painkillers. The CDC has suggested that insurers are paying far too much of these opioids’ costs, and that they should take measures to help reduce the number of prescriptions and, hence, risk of overdoses. Finally, the FDA -- bruised as it is clear its lax oversight contributed to this crisis -- is now considering a mandate that would require physicians to undergo risk training so that they become more judicious when prescribing opioids.
But the question is how to pay for such physician training, and then there are the patients. While drug rehab poses its own share of controversies and criticisms, it is clear society that has to find solutions, as we are all paying for this health scare one way or another.
Considering how pharmaceutical companies such as Purdue Pharma have reaped billions of dollars over the past 20 years thanks to their marketing campaigns, it is time for these firms to step up. They must acknowledge the overwhelming statistics that clearly link these drug manufacturers to this ongoing epidemic, and pay their fair share for education and treatment to help the U.S. overcome this public health disaster. The American Medical Association has called for a renewed ban on direct advertising by pharmaceutical companies; that money, along with funds used to "educate" doctors, could be diverted for other uses in an effort to heal society.
Image credit: Jennifer Durban
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.